Although not the first series to introduce a time-leap stunt to shake up its storytelling (“One Tree Hill” recently did the same), “Desperate Housewives” is the highest-profile program to engineer such a maneuver, and for the most part, it works. Series creator Marc Cherry covers considerable ground in the fifth-season premiere, establishing a new mystery, fracturing some key relationships and giving the characters new challenges. Filling in the gaps should expand the show’s bag of tricks, but the underlying appeal stays familiar enough — providing a safety net for this act of narrative derring-do.
“Housewives” closed last season by fast-forwarding five years, finding Susan (Teri Hatcher) with a new guy, once-glamorous Gabrielle (Eva Longoria Parker) the disheveled mom of two kids, Lynette (Felicity Huffman) grappling with hell-raising teenage boys, and Bree (Marcia Cross) at a different stage in her new career.
Other developments, not to be revealed, fly by in the opener, as well as flashbacks filling in snippets of what transpired during the time-lapse, with Neal McDonough as a welcome addition to Wisteria Lane.
In the process, Cherry hasn’t dramatically altered the show’s fundamentals, which still whip up soapy elements with considerable humor, while repeatedly testing the friendships among his leads. Indeed, some issues that have characterized the series in the past have simply shifted from one character to another, which will probably do more to recharge the jets of his large (and by all accounts, demanding) cast than to galvanize viewers.
Yet while the first episode basically does the heavy lifting setup-wise, the second is a knockout — with great scenes involving Lynette’s well-intentioned but intrusive parenting style, Gabrielle’s social climbing and Bree’s work/home juggling act. These are the kind of moments the show delivered with greater regularity in its first season.
More pragmatically, what the producers have done rewards ABC with a nifty promotional device — creating the appearance of a sweeping shift that’s essentially a modest reboot. The truth is the series has stayed relatively solid through its run, despite uneven patches that are a byproduct of how fast the writers have chewed through storylines, so major surgery wasn’t required.
With “Lost” having plotted its exit strategy, ABC would doubtless like “Housewives” to remain a Sunday staple until the characters become not just desperate, but decrepit. In that context, a stitch in time is certainly preferable to another tornado.